Saint Magnus the Last Viking is a new book from Susan Peek in her series for young people: God’s Forgotten Friends: Lives of Little-Known Saints. From the first few pages, I was completely drawn into the dramatic life-story of a Viking prince from the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland. When the story begins in the early 1100s, Magnus is a pious young teenager who would love nothing more than to retire into a monastery and avoid the constant fighting and bloodshed that is the everyday life of your typical Viking lord. But God has other plans for Magnus. Through the treachery and bloodthirst of his older brother and cousin (the two co-heirs to the Orkney throne), Magnus gets pulled into an epic ordeal that involves battles, imprisonment, exile, and eventually an ascension to the Orkney throne himself. I won’t give away the ending completely, except to say that St. Magnus is also known as St. Magnus the Martyr.
Throughout this very fast-paced, action-packed novel, the author traces the development of Magnus’s deep spirituality and the internal battles he fights to align his will with God’s. He is continually tempted to what is probably the cardinal Viking sin: hatred and desire for vengeance (although definitely not limited to Vikings). Although he is often mocked by his peers for being so “holy,” in reality Magnus struggles constantly to overcome sin. This was a very strong aspect of the story: it’s easy to write off saints as impossibly patient and good, when they actually are just working a lot harder at virtue than the rest of us.
While much of St. Magnus’s life and death is well-known thanks to several epic Viking poems and medieval hymns, I assume the author invented some of the minor details about his life. In general, the plot flowed very well. The only part that I questioned was that in this story, after St. Magnus’s father the king of the Orkney Islands dies, his mother the queen marries a simple farmer. This seemed extremely unlikely to me, given the rigid class separation during the medieval period. Later, when St. Magnus, now the rightful heir to the throne, gathers with several nobles to discuss his plan of action, the farmer sits down with them and shares his opinions. Again, I wondered how a peasant could assume a position of equality among the king’s advisors.
My other criticism is that some of the writing was a little informal, with some modern language that would not have been used at that time. However, I think this could actually appeal to the intended young adult audience.
In all, I truly enjoyed reading this book and was impressed with Susan Peek’s ability to tell a spellbinding story. I will definitely be saving this book for my older children to read when we cycle back to studying medieval history.
I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation but the pleasure of reading this excellent story.
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